NCL America’s newest cruise ship, the Pride of Hawaii, cost more than half-billion dollars to build, and every penny is worth it. It has 10 restaurants, 12 bars, theatrical shows, an “undersea” nightclub, a cigar room, a kids room, a spa and two gigantic Villa penthouses. And everywhere you go, the spirit is “Aloha.”
At 93,500 tons, and carrying 2,400 passengers and 1,000 crew members, the Pride of Hawaii is the largest U.S.-flagged cruise ship ever built. On June 5, it will join its sister ships, the Pride of America and the Pride of Aloha, offering seven-day cruises of the Hawaiian Islands year-round, from their home port of Honolulu. This is a remarkable comeback for American large-ship cruising. It was just two years ago that Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) launched its NCL America brand, offering the first U.S.-flagged ship to cruise the Hawaiian Islands in 50 years.
It's about the islands
Step aboard the Pride of Hawaii and you are enveloped in a kaleidoscope of tropical colors and traditional culture. Everywhere you go, crew members in festive attire greet you with “Aloha” — though it’s often delivered in a Southern or New England accent. This is something new to me. In recent years, cruising has become synonymous with “international service,” and I am accustomed to hearing foreign accents from the crew. On the Pride of Hawaii, every word reminds me that I am on an American ship.
The heart of the ship is the Aloha Atrium, whose ceiling is aglow with colorful lighted glass flowers. The ship’s lobby is located here, as are several of the ship’s specialty restaurants. There’s also a huge TV screen, which shows nonstop videos of the Hawaiian Islands or of shipboard festivities. You can grab a cup of coffee at the Java Cafe, sit back in a comfy chair and people-watch or you can listen to one of the live bands that play throughout the cruise.
During the day, the most popular place on board is the Waikiki Beach Pool area, which has two pools, four whirlpools with colorful awnings and a bright-yellow water slide for kids. I liked the many options for sun and shade, and the ship’s rattan loungers are terrific — the best I’ve seen on any big ship.
The Pride of Hawaii is a great ship, but it is not the main attraction. The main attraction is the destinations. Indeed, on its seven-day itinerary of the islands, the ship will spend almost 100 hours in port, with overnight stays in Maui and Kauai. The cruise goal is clear: It’s all about seeing the Hawaiian Islands in comfort and style.
Stay in a villa
The ship offers a tremendous variety of cabin quarters, from standard inside staterooms and balcony suites to interconnecting cabins and luxurious villas with butler and concierge service.
With its vibrant Hawaiian hues, my 340-square-foot balcony mini-suite was cheerful and welcoming. Most suites have a queen-size bed, a separate living area with a dining table, and concierge service. A standard ocean-view stateroom with a balcony is about 200 square feet; regular ocean-view rooms and inside cabins range between 150 and 160 square feet. All cabins have glossy cherry wood walls and furniture, a television, a refrigerator, a safe, a duvet and a well-designed bathroom with separate toilet and shower/tub areas.
Families or groups traveling together can choose from some 300 interconnecting cabins in a range of categories from standard inside rooms to suites. Different grades of cabins can be also linked to create two to five bedroom areas.
If you’re craving more exclusivity on board, check out the 10 courtyard villas, which come with their own butler and concierge. These villas ring a private, Balinese-style courtyard, which has a retractable roof, rattan sun beds, a plunge pool, a hot tub, a private sun deck, a treadmill and a Stairmaster. Each villa has two bedrooms and a living area and goes for around $5,200 per adult.
Want to be king of the ship? For $26,000 a week, you can stay in one of the two 5,000-square- foot Garden Villa Suites. For that you get three bedrooms, three baths, your own private roof terrace, a private living room with a grand piano, a private garden and your own private hot tub. Think you can’t afford it? According to onboard personnel, several couples will rent one Garden Villa Suite and then divide the cost among them, making it more affordable per couple than a single courtyard villa.
Flexible dining options
With the Pride of Hawaii, NCL continues to refine the “Freestyle Cruising” concept that has become its signature amenity. Passengers enjoy the freedom to dine where, when and with whom they please. “Resort casual” is the norm, and formal night is optional.
With 10 different restaurants to choose from, the dining experiences are varied and laid-back. Passing on the huge dining rooms, I found it a real pleasure to enjoy a glass of wine in Le Bistro one night and a glass of sake with sushi in Jasmine Garden the next.
The culinary options truly set NCL apart from every other cruise line. Dining choices include the ship’s two dining rooms (traditional and contemporary menus), Aloha Nui and Aloha Nui Lanai cafes (informal buffet fare), Papa’s Italian Kitchen, Paniolo Tapas & Salsa Restaurant, and Blue Lagoon (an American-style diner offering comfort food).
For a cover charge of $5 to $20 per person, you can also dine at the following premium venues: Le Bistro (gourmet French cuisine), Jasmine Garden (sushi, teppanyaki and Pacific fusion) and Cagney’s Steakhouse (steak and seafood). Still hungry? There’s an on-deck grill, a coffee shop, an ice cream bar and 24-hour room service.
With the launch of the Pride of Hawaii, NCL America has made some changes to make the dining service run more smoothly. The biggest change is the addition of flat-panel monitors all around the ship that display information on seat availability and wait times for each restaurant. If you have your heart set on eating at Le Bistro and there’s a 30-minute wait, the maitre d’ will give you a pager that works anywhere on the ship. You can also reserve space at any restaurant through the maitre d’.
Karaoke in public or private
The three-deck-high Stardust Theater is the place to go for the ship’s spirited theatrical performances, which are always well-attended. In addition, there are evening Waikiki Beach pool parties with changing themes. One night was a Hawaiian-themed “Rock-a-Hula”; the other night was a ’70s “Flower Power Party.”
There is no casino on the ship, so the liveliest place on board is Bar Central, a new concept for NCL that was unveiled on the Norwegian Jewel last year. Bar Central is a hub of three separate but interconnected bars. Hang around long enough and pretty much everyone on the ship will have made a pit stop here.
Upstairs from Bar Central, nightlife can get really funky at the Medusa Lounge. It has a festive undersea motif, which makes you feel like a mermaid. I heard a terrible but hilarious version of “Wind Beneath My Wings” in the karaoke section. If you love karaoke but don’t like public humiliation, you can belt out your own songs in one of the three private karaoke rooms. If you prefer a bar with a view, head for the Spinnaker Lounge on Deck 13.
Entertainment for children can be found at the Keiki Club (for younger kids) and at the surf-themed Wipe Out Teens Club. Passengers can also take advantage of NCL’s new shipwide Wi-Fi capability. While I had no problem with the Wi-Fi on the pool deck, I did have difficulty with it in my cabin. Fortunately, there’s a broadband hookup in the cabin that worked great.
Body Waves Fitness Center on Deck 12 is open 24 hours a day for those who are so inclined. The facility has all the latest weight machines, cardiovascular equipment and free weights, plus a separate room for fitness classes. Aerobics and stretch classes are free; Pilates, yoga and Spinning classes cost $10 apiece. There is also a jogging track and sports deck with bleacher seating that accommodates basketball, volleyball and tennis. There are also two driving nets for golf, a shuffleboard court and ping-pong tables.
The Ying & Yang Spa, operated by Mandara Spas, is the perfect place to unwind and get pampered. The best part of the spa is the relaxation rooms, which have great sea views, a hydrotherapy pool, tropical-experience showers, a plunge pool, aromatic steam rooms, a sauna and heated chaise lounges.
Service: NCL has learned from its mistakes
Service has been a problem for NCL America since it launched its first ship with crews that had little or no shipboard experience. Fortunately, the cruise line has learned from its mistakes and service has improved. The company credits better hiring practices and new training, including a three-week training course at the Seafarers International Union of America training center in Piney Point, Md.
“We’ve seen a dramatic improvement over where we were in the beginning,” said Andy Stuart, NCL’s executive vice president for marketing.
I doubt the NCL America service will ever be as refined as the service you get on internationally crewed ships, but the crew on board the Pride of Hawaii is certainly the most enthusiastic crew I’ve ever sailed with. I found a group of young people who are eager to please and quick to make fun conversation.
In the end, this cruise isn’t about the food or the service; it’s about the destination. Active volcanoes, lush rain forests, pristine beaches and cascading waterfalls are the stars of this voyage, and the ship says “Aloha” from the moment you set foot on board.
Anita Dunham-Potter is a Pittsburgh-based travel journalist specializing in cruise travel. Anita's columns have appeared in major newspapers and many Internet outlets, and she is a contributor to Fodor's "Complete Guide to Caribbean Cruises 2006." E-mail Anita or visit her Web site anitavacation.com.